Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have criticised the lobbying act as "illiberal" and a "terrible piece of legislation" after both organisations were fined a combined £31,000 by the Electoral Commission for failing to abide by joint campaigning rules.
The Electoral Commission said today that Greenpeace had been fined £30,000 and Friends of the Earth £1,000 for failing to register with the commission as non-party campaigners – a legal necessity for all organisations that spend more that £20,000 in England or £10,000 in Wales on campaigning prior to an election.
The fines related to an anti-fracking poster campaign the two organisations carried out in the run-up to the 2015 general election.
Greenpeace spent £99,000 in England and £12,000 in Wales on a boat tour, as well as the poster campaign. Friends of the Earth spent £24,000 in England on the poster campaign and a "manifesto scorecard" that was published on its website.
According to Electoral Commission rules, which were introduced in 2014, spending on joint campaigns counts towards the spending limits for each campaigner involved.
Both organisations’ non-charitable arms were involved in the campaigns and were the subject of the commission’s fines.
Greenpeace said it had decided to take a "principled stand" against the lobbying act and had refused to register with the Electoral Commission.
According to Greenpeace, the lobbying act’s definition of what constitutes "regulated activities" is so broad that it could "include any activity that could be interpreted as political".
The lobbying act has been previously criticised by a coalition of 160 charities – including the Royal British Legion, Save the Children and the Salvation Army – and a government-commissioned review by the Conservative peer Lord Hodgson recommended reforming the act to focus on activities intended to influence voting in an election, rather than general campaigning.
John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, said today: "Sometimes legislation is just wrong and you have to stand up and say so. That’s why we decided to oppose this illiberal law in an act of civil disobedience.
"The lobbying act is a democratic car crash: it weakens democracy and curtails free speech. Now Britain is going into a second general election regulated by a law that does little to stop powerful companies exerting secret influence in the corridors of power while gagging charities and campaign groups with millions of members. If the last election is anything to go by, it will have a chilling effect on groups trying to raise important issues."
According to a statement from Friends of the Earth, the organisation made an "administrative error" while attempting to comply with the lobbying act.
It said the campaign with Greenpeace pushed Friends of the Earth over the spending threshold, which meant it had to register with the commission, but the organisation realised this too late to meet the registration deadline.
Craig Bennett, chief executive of Friends of the Earth, said: "The lobbying act was rushed through just before the 2015 election. It is a terrible piece of legislation that has been widely criticised. Despite our opposition to the act, we did our best to comply with it, but unfortunately made an administrative error, to which we hold our hands up.
"Many charities were too worried about the new legislation to campaign – this had a chilling and silencing effect on civil society. These poorly designed laws again threaten to silence charities during a crucial election, and today’s ruling will only add to that concern."
Bob Posner, director of party finance and regulation, and legal counsel for the Electoral Commission, said: "Non-party campaigners are vital to a healthy democracy and we encourage their active participation during campaign periods; however, where a significant amount of money is being spent on campaigning it is right that voters can see who is spending that money and what they are campaigning for."